Rocketships in Mudville

Science fiction, writing, and baseball: three things that I love. And when they can be combined into a single post, what’s not to love about that? Let me start out by saying that this post will not be about baseball in science fiction. Steven H. Silver has covered that topic in fine fashion and I don’t have anything to add there. Where baseball comes into play is in its analogies to writing–and for me specifically–writing science fiction.

I often make a lot of baseball analogies when it comes to describing my experience with writing. Some people hate sports analogies and if you are one of those people, you probably don’t want to go beyond the jump cut. But the truth is that writing, for me, is like baseball in many ways.

Writing takes practice. You have to learn the fundamentals: how to throw a ball, swing a bat. How to run the bases and slide without breaking your ankle. We’re not even worrying about throwing curveballs at this point, after all we don’t want you throwing out your arm. Writing is like this, too. A fundamental understanding of the basic grammar of the language you are writing in is necessary. It’s  probably a good idea to be able to spell, or to be familiar with a spell-checker. But it goes beyond that too. Just as a burgeoning ballplayer begins to get an innate feeling for the game by watching them played, so a science fiction writer has to get a feel for the genre by reading the stories. And let me tell you, practice never ends. It might become more efficient as a writer becomes more proficient, but practice is always there. Each draft of a story, each scene is a form of practice. Hopefully you’ll have good coaches along the way to guide you, show you some tricks, identify and eliminate the bad habits. But even professional baseball players still practice.

Writing is a progression. There are different levels at which you write and for different reasons. As a kid I played baseball because it was fun. Maybe I entertained the thought of becoming a professional baseball player, but it was more a fantasy for me. (My brother, on the other hand, played baseball through college and eventually in the semi-pro leagues.) The writing equivalent of Little League is writing for the pure joy of it, for the creation of a story, for the imitation of the heroes we’ve identified in the things we’ve read. When you become serious about writing, when you think, this is something I really want to do, that’s when you move up to the next level. You are now writing not just because its fun but because you think in some way that people can benefit from your talent. This is like high school baseball, where you try out for the team. Maybe you write stories for contests. Maybe you take a creative writing class. In some manner, you are putting yourself out there for the first time to allow your performance to be judged by an objective third party.

Writing involves rejection. Sometimes, you don’t make the cut. Maybe you tried out for the varsity team a little too early. Maybe you need more practice hitting, or more speed on the bases. For whatever reason, you aren’t picked. Even at the lowest levels, there’s the stories of the kid who’s last to be picked for a team. (Someone has to be last.) Or who gets put into right field, implying they are the weakest player at younger levels. Writing has no right field that I can think of but it has plenty of rejection. And that rejection generally falls into two different categories: form-letter and personal. It’s those personal rejections that show you are making progress. Getting a rejection slip that says, “There’s nice writing here, but the humor didn’t work for me,” is like fouling off a tough pitch. You made contact, but your bat was just a little too fast or a little too slow to keep the ball in fair territory. A hitting coach here is invaluable. Sometimes all it takes is a small adjustment to turn a foul ball into a home run. Maybe the pacing was too slow. Maybe there wasn’t enough of a hook. Maybe the ending wasn’t worthy of the rest of the story. Rejection in writing, like foul balls in baseball, is where you learn to make those subtle, but important adjustments.

Writing involves criticism. All the sportswriters are saying that you should have swung at that third strike instead of taking the pitch, but what the heck do they know anyway. Writing is like that, too. Big name writer or relative newcomer, your writing will be reviewed and will be critiqued. It will start when you show your first story to your family members and it will continue until long after you are dead. Each new story, each new novel opens you up to criticism. Sometimes criticism is positive and sometimes it isn’t. As a writer your job is to focus on what is constructive and not let any of the criticism distract you. Keep showing up to practice. Keeping trying out for the big leagues. And once you are there…

Writing involves setting an example for those who follow. This is especially true of the science fiction world. It is a pay-it-forward world. And in many cases the veterans act as coaches and mentors to the young newcomers. And when those young newcomers find themselves to be veterans, they return the favor to the latest batch of young newcomers. We see some of this in baseball. Players fill their playing careers with a variety of achievements. When they retire as a player, it is often to become a coach, or a manager. Or to run a baseball camp. Or to somehow be involved with encouraging newcomers and promoting the sport. The science fiction world is no different.

Professional baseball players often talk about their first time playing in a big league stadium. Many of them talk about their first time playing in such places as Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. There are equivalents in science fiction, but they vary by fan-cum-writer. The Yankee Stadium of science fiction, for me, is Analog, and when my story recently appeared in that magazine, it was a magical moment. Seeing my name on the table of contents was like having Bob Sheppard call out over the PA system, “Now batting, number 27, Jamie Todd Rubin, number 27.”

There’s just no baseball analogy for how that make me feel.

3 thoughts on “Rocketships in Mudville

  1. If you’d like to combine those three things in something you can read, try Phil Farmer’s Flesh. It’s writing (his), it’s science fiction (about astronauts returning to a far future Earth) and the main character has to participate in a very bizarre version of baseball during one of the major scenes.

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